July 30, 2012 - 10:36 am

Last month, five conservative legislators, spearheaded by Michele Bachmann, sent letters of alarm to the State, Defense, and Justice Departments as well as the Department of Homeland Security. One even made it to the Director of National Intelligence’s desk. These letters urged the recipients to believe that there is a significant Muslim Brotherhood presence among top-ranking Muslim U.S. officials that needs to be searched out, starting with individuals like Muslim-American Huma Abedin, longtime aide and deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton.

Bachmann’s letter to the State Department accuses Abedin’s mother, brother, and late father of having connections to “Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations,” and points out suspiciously Muslim-friendly actions that the State Department has recently taken. As many commentators have pointed out, there is no substantial evidence that Abedin has or has ever had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Congressman Keith Ellison called Bachmann’s “Muslim witch hunt” a “bizarre game of six degrees of separation.”

Voices have chimed in from all sides to call out Bachmann’s letters as discriminatory and ill-supported. In a powerful floor speech, Senator John McCain of Arizona condemned the accusations, saying that they “have no logic” and “need to stop.” Speaker of the House John Boehner concurred, calling Bachmann’s attacks “pretty dangerous.” Even Jon Stewart weighed in on how ludicrous the accusations are, pointing out that one could easily draw similar conclusions about Bachmann herself!

The Constitution explicitly states that ”no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office” in the United States. The very idea of questioning an American’s allegiance based on ethnicity or religion brings to the surface some of America’s darker history, such as Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps during World War II. There is something chillingly McCarthian about rounding up and investigating Muslim-American officials to test where their loyalties lie.

Bachmann’s actions are a direct threat to the livelihood, religious freedom, and very safety of the accused – Ms. Abedin is now being escorted by security after receiving threats against her life following the release of these letters.

But this type of religious prejudice not only affects the accused; it sets a broader tone for what is and is not acceptable in our society and creates a heightened sense of tension, uneasiness and distrust among all Americans who do not identify with the majority religion or ethnicity. It also denigrates the First Amendment, which protects all Americans regardless of religion. Our founders recognized that the separation of religion and government was the best guarantee of freedom for all Americans precisely because of reasons such as this.

In response to Bachmann’s unsupported claims, the Interfaith Alliance brought together 42 groups, including the Secular Coalition for America, to cosign a letter admonishing Bachmann and her compatriots for their serious violation of religious privacy and asserting that we “will continue to speak out in support of people of all faiths and no faith, and the religious freedom of all Americans to practice—or choose not to practice—a religion without fear of criticism or suspicion.”

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin had these wise words to say when asked about the whole Bachmann affair: “The First Amendment prohibits the government from making a distinction between what is a ‘good religion’ and what is a ‘bad religion’… Religion is a personal issue to every one of the people who lives in the United States, whether you practice a faith, how you practice a faith, whether you don’t practice a faith, whether you say you’re a member of a faith but don’t practice it, it’s none of the government’s business.”

It’s up to Americans of all backgrounds to stand up to religious persecution when we see it—whether the target is a Muslim or a nontheist. Casting suspicion on particular groups, based solely on religious affiliation (or lack thereof) is a direct affront to our Constitution. That, Ms. Bachmann, is un-American.

June 28, 2012 - 10:28 am

This week, in “News That Sounds Like an Onion Article,” The Scotsman reports that a publicly funded Christian school in Louisiana uses a biology textbook that states that the Loch Ness monster is a real-life evolution-debunking plesiosaur. Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, which accepts taxpayer-funded vouchers, is not the only school using an Accelerated Christian Education textbook; researcher Bruce Wilson estimates that 200,000 children use this and similar textbooks intended for a fundamentalist Christian education.

The ACE Biology textbook, edition 1099, has a lot to say about dinosaurs. Unnamed “scientists” are “becoming more convinced of their existence.” The book states matter-of-factly, “Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.” Their evidence for Nessie? She’s been “recorded on sonar, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others.” The textbook also notes that a Japanese whaling boat once caught a dinosaur.

Thanks to a recent bill signed by Governor Bobby Jindal, large sums of public education funds are being funneled into student private school vouchers. Louisiana lawmakers have balked at extending vouchers to Islamic schools, and a majority of schools receiving funds are Christian. A number of sectarian private schools that teach religious beliefs (and ignore well-established scientific fact when the two conflict) are included in this group.

Unsurprisingly, the ACE curriculum is especially hostile to the theory of evolution, noting that the “gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis,” because “God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals.”

If the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur that co-exists with humans, the thought process goes, it would be a great boon to the Young Earth Creationists’ belief that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark fewer than ten thousand years ago. Evolution would then be incorrect in stating that dinosaurs have long been extinct.

Nessie’s existence is unsupported by current science, but ACE is willing to throw science under the bus in the interest of maintaining a fundamentalist belief system. This means that Louisiana taxpayer funds are being spent on an education that, as the principal of Eternity Christian Academy, Marie Carrier, says, “stays away from all those things that might confuse our children.”

Parents have always been able to pay to have their children taught in private schools that support their belief system. If a family that embraces creationism or identifies as Muslim chooses to homeschool their children or sends them to a private school, then there’s no issue. But a school that receives public funds must, without special treatment, be held to public standards, one of which is an accurate scientific education. That excludes Nessie.

Teaching that the Loch Ness Monster is real would almost be funny if many children were not being misled by scientifically unsupported information and valuable public funds were not funding explicitly religious pseudoscience. 

It’s not uncommon to hear conservative politicians call the separation of church and state a “myth,” but when mythical beasts are taught as fact… perhaps some myth-busting is in order.


June 14, 2012 - 12:30 pm

In March 2009, 17-year-old Zachery Swezey complained to his parents that he didn’t feel well. His parents believed he had the flu. Zachery suffered fevers and vomiting for days as his condition worsened. Finally, when he could no longer walk to the bathroom, Greg and JaLea Swezey called church elders to come over and anoint their son with olive oil.

The Swezeys are members of Carlton’s Church of the First Born, which practices faith healing. The next day, Zachery died. The cause was appendicitis, a condition with a mortality rate of almost zero thanks to the wonders of modern medicine.

Zachery’s death is truly regrettable, especially since it was completely preventable. What is even more outrageous is that his parents have been acquitted of second-degree murder for his death. The couple has pled third-degree criminal mistreatment; it’s unclear at this point what sentence they will ultimately receive. To obtain a lighter sentence, the Swezeys appealed to the spirit of a Washington state law that frees Christian Scientists from criminal neglect charges.

This isn’t the only religiously-based medical exemption on the books. A whopping 48 states allow religious exemption from immunizations, for example, which jeopardizes the health of not only those children, but the children around them; one study conducted of unvaccinated children in Colorado found them 35 times more likely to contract measles than vaccinated children, and at least 11% of cases in vaccinated children were caused by contact with an unvaccinated child.

The exemptions get more extreme: students in many states can evade physical exams, hearing tests, treatments for life-threatening illnesses like tuberculosis, and more. Six states allow students to be exempt from learning about disease at school. Oregon and Pennsylvania actually offer religious exemptions from bicycle helmets.

This lack of preventative health care is tragic and reckless, but nowhere near as dangerous as exemptions from providing medical care to already-sick children. Thirty-eight states allow for religious exemptions for neglect!

Pediatrician Seth Asser and CHILD president Rita Swan have published a study examining the deaths of 172 children where medical care was withheld on religious grounds. They found that 140 of the children would have had at least a 90% likelihood of survival with medical care.

These laws unquestionably increase the suffering of blameless children. Numerous court cases of children dying of completely treatable diseases have ended with the parents walking away relatively scot-free, because legally, prayer is equally as effective a treatment as antibiotics. Parents do, of course, have the right to decide what is best for their children, and exemptions exist to respect those choices. But if a mother with a non-religious personal conviction failed to care properly for a son with fatal appendicitis, she would not receive a lighter sentence like the Swezeys have.

The law widely allows special treatment of faith-based neglect, and this neglect is tragic enough without failing to give it fair consequences.